Academic Profile

Anna joined the School of Geography and the Environment in September 2009, jointly appointed by the School of Interdisciplinary Area Studies (SIAS). She has a PhD in Social and Cultural Anthropology from Oxford University; an MA in Chinese Studies and a BA in Anthropology, both from the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. Before taking up her post in Oxford, Anna worked as a lecturer and research fellow in Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Manchester. She also previously held a Departmental Lecturership in the Modern Politics and Society of China at the Institute of Chinese Studies, University of Oxford.

Anna's work embodies a particular synergy between human geography and the study of China and focuses on environmental pollution, development and health in the Chinese countryside. She is a keen supporter of long-term ethnographic field research and since 2004 she has carried out long periods of fieldwork in rural China (Sichuan province and more recently Yunnan, Hunan, Guangdong and Hebei). Her work is concerned with unpacking the naturalisation of perceptions of health and pollution, how they are produced and their political economic overtones (for instance how dependence on a nearby factory might make pollution acceptable). This offers a new type of bottom-up political ecology, which does not assume local communities are passive and isolated victims of development and capitalist oppression, nor that they are inherently 'nature-friendly' but focuses on the agency of farmers or workers in polluting industries, potential conflicts of interests and attitudes to 'clean nature' versus 'pollution'.

Anna strongly believes in interdisciplinarity and in its value for understanding environmental health problems. For this reason, she was involved between 2007 and 2013 with the SSRC's China Environment and Health Initiative (CEHI) and the Forum on Health, Environment and Development (FORHEAD), which are designed to bring together natural and social scientists working on these issues. As part of this initiative, she participated in a project on 'citizens' perceptions of rural industrial pollution and its effects on health', which included scholars from legal and political science (Benjamin Van Rooij and Wang Qiliang) and sociology (Wu Yunmei) and was led by public health specialist (Zhang Yiyun) at the Chinese NGO, the Yunnan Health and Development Research Association (YHDRA). She has also been part of an interdisciplinary research project on a lead-zinc mining town. The project was supported by FORHEAD and core members included CEHIs director Jennifer Holdaway; Li Yonghua, Ran Shenhong, Wang Wuyi, Yang Linsheng and Zheng Rui at the Chinese Academy of Sciences; Fang Jing at the Kunming Medical University and Lu Jixia at China's Agricultural University. Anna has closely reviewed work by Ajiang Chen and his research team (Hohai University) on "cancer villages" in order to provide a context to the research projects she participated in on pollution and health. Finally, Anna collaborated with Li Liping at Shantou University and with research fellows at Oxford Peter Wynn Kirby and Yvan Schulz to examine e-waste in China and Japan, with a focus on local residents' understandings of risk, pollution and circular economy. An additional related project on rural-urban coalitions and resistance to waste incineration (in collaboration with Thomas Johnson and Lu Jixia) also feeds into the wider theme of living with pollution.

This collaboration between disciplines and with members of China's civil society fosters a deep understanding of the mechanisms by which environmental health governance works and why it may fail to do so. This research is of vital importance to policy makers, NGOs and the broader community, and Anna is strongly committed to disseminating such work beyond academia through widening participation initiatives, public talks and research collaborations.

Current Research

Anna's current research covers a diverse range of topics, including: how socio-politically situated perceptions of development and consumerism intersect with attitudes to health and pollution in the Chinese countryside; lay cancer aetiologies; home care for illness and attitudes to formal healthcare provision; how coexisting moral economies of subsistence and the market are articulated in everyday life; experiences of urbanisation and land loss; international flows of e-waste; resistance to waste incineration; the rise of citizen science in rural China; the production and contestation of knowledge around pollution; environmental health activism and the formation of 'environmental health subjects.'

Anna's first monograph Fighting for Breath: Living Morally and Dying of Cancer in a Chinese Village is based on a total of 18 months of fieldwork in rural north-east Sichuan province starting in 2004. It is the first book-length ethnography to offer a bottom-up account of how families strive to make sense of cancer and care for sufferers in contemporary rural China. It explores lay perceptions of illness causality and everyday practices of care as prisms to understand how relationships with family members, locality and the state are reproduced or contested since the socio-economic reforms. Her second monograph, Resigned Activism: Living with Pollution in Rural China (2017, MIT Press) draws on fieldwork in three sites undertaken in collaboration with colleagues detailed above and on a close analysis of Ajiang Chen's work on 'cancer villages' to examine the complex spectrum of local responses to pollution. Anna also edited a special collection for The China Quarterly on 'Dying for Development: Pollution, Illness and the Limits of Citizens' Agency in China' (2013) and co-edited a special section of the journal AREA on 'Peering Through Loopholes, Tracing Conversions: Remapping the Transborder Trade in Electronic Waste' (2015, with Peter Wynn Kirby). Her research has appeared in Social Anthropology, The China Quarterly, The China Journal, The Journal of Contemporary China, Evidence and Policy, The Pace Environmental Law Review, World Development, Positions, and AREA.

Since 2006, her interests in cancer and in the mutual relationship between health, human activity and environment have led Anna to focus more closely on pollution in rural China, and she has organised and taken part in several interdisciplinary workshops on these topics. In 2012 Anna was awarded a Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship to fund a year of research and work on her second monograph. In 2014 she spent a month at the Rockefeller Foundation Bellagio Center continuing work on the book. In 2013, Anna was awarded Philip Leverhulme Prize in Geography which has supported her research on pollution, health and activism in rural China and the development of new projects. She is director of a Leverhulme Trust Project on 'Circuits of Waste and Value: Making E-waste Subjects in China and Japan' (£322,557) which built on previous research with Peter Wynn Kirby funded by a John Fell Award Award and in collaboration with Prof Li Liping at Shantou University. She was also co-investigator (with Thomas Johnson and Jixia Lu) on the project 'Coalitions of the "weak": fighting pollution at China's rural-urban interface', funded by Hong Kong Research Grants Council (HK$457,168). Her past research was supported by the Leverhulme Trust, the British Academy, the Arts and Humanities Research Council, the British Inter-University China Centre (phase 1 and 2) and the Social Science Research Council.

Selected Research Projects

Selected grants and prizes

  • 2015-2019 - Circuits of Waste and Value: Making E-waste Subjects in China and Japan. Leverhulme Trust Project Grant RPG-2014-224 (£322,557)
  • 2014-2017 - (Co-Investigator with Thomas Johnson and Jixia Lu) Coalitions of the "weak": fighting pollution at China's rural-urban interface. Hong Kong Research Grants Council (HK$457,168)
  • 2014 - Bellagio Center Rockefeller Academic Writing Residency
  • 2013 - Winner of Philip Leverhulme Prize in Geography (£70,000)
  • 2012-2013 - Urban mining, toxic payload: transnational circuits of e-waste between Japan and China. John Fell OUP research fund (Oxford University) (£86,793)
  • 2012-2014 - 'Environmental Cultures' Network, British-Interuniversity China Centre, Network Leader funded by AHRC, ESRC and HEFCE (£10,900)
  • 2012-13 - Living with Pollution in China: and Ethnographic Perspective, Leverhulme Trust Research Fellowship (RF-2012-260) (£43,342)
  • 2010-12 - Making Environmental Health Subjects in Contemporary Rural China: Contested Illnesses, Pollution and the "Good Life", British Academy, SG091048 (£7,480)
  • 2004-05 - Study Abroad Studentship, The Leverhulme Trust, SAS/6/SAS/2004/0055 (£13,500 per annum)
  • 2003-06 - AHRB Postgraduate Award, Doctoral Competition
  • 2002-03 - AHRB Postgraduate Award, Masters Competition


Anna has taught on:

  • 'Economy and Transformation', Geography Prelims course
  • 'Nature and Society', MSc Nature, Society and Environmental Governance,
  • 'The socio-political Nature of Water', MSc Water Science, Policy and Management
  • 'The Study of Modern China', MSc Modern Chinese Studies
  • 'Health, Environment and Development', elective course taught with Public Health and Development Studies
  • China's Environment and Environmental Movements, MSc elective for SoGE and SIAS students

Current Graduate Research Students

Raffaele Ippolito

Global Environmental (in)Activism: An Ethnography of Pollution, Illness and Community Resistance in Italy and Taiwan

Shona Loong

At the margins of a ‘development darling’: intersections between civil society, governance, and development in Karen State, Myanmar

Recent Graduate Research Students (since 2006)

Guanli Zhang
Completed DPhil in 2019

Digesting industrialisation: social changes in two industrialised villages in east China

Irina Fedorenko
Completed DPhil in 2018

Environmental activism, non-governmental organisations and new generation of civil society in Russia and China

Jonathan Balls
Completed DPhil in 2017

Fluid capitalism at the bottom of the pyramid: a study of the off-grid solar power market in Uttar Pradesh, India

Saher Hasnain
Completed DPhil in 2017

Food environments in Islamabad, Pakistan

Carlo Inverardi Ferri
Completed DPhil in 2016

Invisible spaces: variegated geographies of waste in China

Yuge Ma
Completed DPhil in 2016

The emergence of low carbon development in China and India: energy efficiency as a lens

Charlotte von Mangoldt
Completed DPhil in 2016

Student environmentalism in Beijing, China

Haiyan (Helen) Yu
Completed DPhil in 2015

Water, Power and IWRM (Integrated Water Resources Management) - a comparative study of village water governance in arid and semi-arid northwest China

Loretta Ieng Tak Lou
Completed DPhil in 2016
(Anthropology, University of Oxford)
Healing Nature: Green living and the politics of hope in Hong Kong.
Sam Geall
(Manchester University)
Pollution and the Press: Investigating eco-governmentality in contemporary China.

Selected Publications

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Journal Articles

Special / Edited Collections

Book Chapters


Working papers

Quoted in the media